Demystifying The Curatorial Process: A Conversation with Patrick Bobilin

Jeriah Hildwine


Patrick Bobilin ran Noble and Superior Projects, with Erin Nixon, from 2009 until June 2011.  From New York, Bobilin earned his BA in 2008 from Hampshire College, in Sculpture, Film, and Philosophy, minoring in Physics and Music.  After graduating he flew to Berlin to work as an assistant for an artist who curated a gallery in Mitte.  He recently completed his MFA from SAIC.  In this article, I ask Patrick to explain to the rest of us just what it is that curators do, and how they do it.

JH: It seems like the curatorial process includes finding relationships between pieces, to arrange them in the space. How would you describe this relationship or dialog between pieces?

PB: There are a couple of things for me that help in putting shows together.  Material similarities can do a lot to tell an audience “Oh I see–all of these people are using X,” whether it’s a color palette, media or type of imagery.  What also helps is an overarching “narrative” or theme.  We usually group people together based on conceptual similarities.  After that, we either choose some work that we like and (often) ask for something specific to our show based on some theme we come up with based on the relationship between the artists.  Sometimes we show the work of the other artists in the show to the artist we’re speaking with.  From there, it’s pure alchemy.  More often than not we end up with things that “just fit.”  We get all the work here, having a vague idea in mind of how it’s going to flow based on size and our restrictions [of the space] and start to place things around.  It seems to work.

JH: Do you have any tips for a novice viewer; what can they do to develop “a more educated eye”?

PB: I think it’s about two things–viewing individual artworks as unique and singular and detached from the context, and viewing the entirety of the context (lighting…height from the floor, what’s next to each artwork, what the room sounds like and smells like…)  Most places where artwork is shown have something like four walls, which is somewhat circular.  It’s a challenge to read any type of exhibition, but I think it’s important for novice viewers to think of two things simultaneously–There are always intentions and there are always accidents.  Neither one is necessarily more valuable than the other, but it’s important to see what seems intentional and what seems accidental, though it may not be important to know the truth.  Reading art is about history and context, but there’s always that aspect of intuition that shouldn’t be discounted.

JH: When you’ve decided on an individual to put in an exhibition, how do you select what work to include?

PB: As I’ve said, we often ask people to make work that’s unique to the show or to show things they haven’t shown before.  We usually choose people based on previous work, but those are usually things that have been exhibited.  We are more about putting together supergroups than hits compilations.  Shows are often inspired by the work of a couple of artists and from there we use ideas that seem to be present in the work to create a show.  We pitch the idea to the artists and then have them choose/create a number of pieces we narrow it down from.  Big group shows are more about a theme we throw out to the group in order to receive work that fits together in some vague way.  And it’s worked out every time, I think, especially with YOUNGER THAN JANIS.  I think about Cara Anne Greene’s food at least every weekend.

JH: Sometimes curators will talk about sort of ephemeral traits like “harmony” and “balance” and how a work “reads.” Could you explain or demystify these phrases in any way? Is this just a fancy way of saying, “Make it look good,” or is there more to it? Are there strategies involved that go beyond aesthetics: can a curatorial decision be a critical statement? Do commercial considerations come into play (“Let’s put this here because it is more likely to sell that way” for example)?


PB: When curators talk about harmony and balance and how a work reads, it’s more often than not related to glaring and obvious similarities between artworks (“all of these people paint boats!”) or media (“all of these people are projecting digital videos!”).  I mean, there are always going to be critical people in an audience who have a sense of the underlying motivations behind a show, as in a Van Gogh retrospective which culminates with “starry night” at a sort of cul de sac or something, which is akin to a sort of operatic dynamism where the climax is preceded by some other less important things.  And in a commercial gallery, they’ll hang the “coolest” stuff close to the window or entrance to get viewers excited.

Then again we struggle with “harmony and balance” in certain respects.  We don’t want to crowd a room–we like to give each work enough space.  At the same time, we don’t want a bunch of unused wall space–unless it’s a creative statement, unused wall space is like a missed opportunity, an empty train car, a light left on when no one’s home. Every show is restricted by the given “balance” of the space and can easily take it for granted.

But “harmony” comes in an effort to not overstimulate or overstate the concepts the show is trying to relate.  But all curatorial decisions are critical statements, because curators can have more intimate relationships with the spaces they are working with than some of the artists and most of the audience.  Curators know which walls get looked at more, which rooms are seen first and much like a filmmaker, the curator should draw the viewer’s eye around the “frame” and use all of the space to its potential.  And in this way, a good commercial curator can make all the work look “sellable” based on the way they draw the eye and what goes next to what.  It’s like a cute dog next to a less cute dog.  In some cases that less-cute dog is going to be a little cuter.  And in some cases that less-cute dog is also going to look stupid.